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Mark Story: For Derby-winning jockey, a twist of fate leads to roses

The ever-fickle hands of the Kentucky Derby fates seemed determined to crush John Velazquez.

When Velazquez's 2011 Derby mount, the highly regarded Uncle Mo, was scratched Friday, it marked the third straight year the Puerto Rican jockey lost a possible favorite to injury during the week of the race.

In 2009, it was Quality Road, pulled from the Kentucky Derby because of a quarter crack. Last year, a leg injury knocked lavishly hyped Eskendereya from the Derby.

At 39, with 12 Kentucky Derby rides and no victories to show for them, even the supremely accomplished Velazquez had to wonder whether his destiny was to never win America's signature horse race.

After Friday's scratch of Uncle Mo because of a gastrointestinal condition, "I didn't want to hang myself," Velazquez said. "It did seem like it wasn't meant to be."

Yet just when it seemed that the racing gods had abused Velazquez beyond all decency, they flipped the Derby script for the jockey in a fashion so dramatic it will be talked about as long as the Derby is run.

Riding a horse he picked up on Friday because an injured Robby Albarado was taken off it, Velazquez spurred Animal Kingdom to a 23/4-length victory in the 137th Kentucky Derby. A crowd of 164,858, the largest ever to see a Derby, saw Velazquez execute a flawless ride and exorcise all those Derby demons.

"A lot of things happen for a reason," a beaming Velazquez said afterward. "After three years, back-to-back, I guess it was just meant to be."

In the lore of the Kentucky Derby, the names of Velazquez and Albarado will now forever be linked.

Albarado did not ride Animal Kingdom on Saturday because he was involved in a spill Wednesday before a race at Churchill that left him with a broken nose and a cut eye.

Barry Irwin, who manages the Team Valor partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, said he and the horse's trainer, Graham Motion, agreed Thursday night that if Albarado did not ride during Friday's Churchill Downs card, they would make a jockey change for the Derby.

Friday came, and Albarado was inactive.

Meanwhile, Uncle Mo was scratched by trainer Todd Pletcher, freeing up Velazquez, a current Racing Hall of Fame nominee.

Irwin decided to make the switch.

"We didn't dump Rob just to get Johnny," Irwin said. "I wouldn't do anything like that. When (Albarado) didn't ride Friday, we thought that was just a risk we were not prepared to take."

In an outcome that will haunt Albarado, he was back in the saddle at Churchill Downs on Saturday. He even rode Sassy Image to victory in the Humana Distaff.

"Barry Irwin decided he didn't think I was fit to ride," Albarado said after that race. "He didn't know my status or my situation. ... It's unfortunate I got taken off the horse in the Derby, but that's horse racing, you know. It happens."

Albarado pointedly added, "physically, I feel great."

When Velazquez got to Churchill on Saturday, he was stunned to see Albarado getting ready to ride.

They talked. Said Velazquez: "The only thing he said to me: 'You're riding a good horse.' "

Was he ever.

Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer, told Velazquez in the paddock to be willing to give up some ground early if that was the trade-off for a clean trip.

Velazquez did as told. On the rare occasions when Animal Kingdom even had a sniff of trouble, the jockey guided him away from it.

Animal Kingdom ran 12th early, rallied to third at the top of the stretch, then wore down pace-setter Shackleford for a lead he would not relinquish.

It was John Velazquez who claimed his first Kentucky Derby win. Robby Albarado is left with a lifetime of what-ifs.

Albarado, who has never won the Derby, declined to comment after the race.

"I feel bad for Robby," Velazquez said. "This business, it's a roller coaster. I've been on the other end. ... I told Robby, don't worry; if we win this race, I'm going to take care of you."

Velazquez did not elaborate on what "take care of you" meant.

Albarado can only hope that the Kentucky Derby fates have a reversal of fortune in his future that is as stunning as the one they gave John Velazquez on Saturday.

Said Velazquez: "A dream come true."

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